IN 1979, South Korean president Park Chung-hee, who had seized power 17 years earlier in a military coup d’état, was shot to death by his director of central intelligence. The following year, Army General Chun Doo-hwan took advantage of the power vacuum left by the assassination to stage his own coup. Chun's presidential term, which ended in 1989, marked some of the darkest and most turbulent years in South Korea's struggle toward democratization, comparable to Pinochet's reign in Chile or the Dirty War of Argentina. During Chun's time in power, political rivals were eliminated amid sketchy accusations of North Korean sympathies or subversive activities; military force — often deadly — was used to quell civilian protests against the authoritarian regime. Political activists were summarily arrested, tortured, or "disappeared."
This is the backdrop of I'll Be Right There, a novel written in 2011 by South Korean author Kyung-sook Shin and recently translated into English, the second of Shin’s books to be available in the United States. The protagonist is Jung Yoon, a depressed college freshman who has just moved to Seoul to attend art school. She is reeling from the recent death of her mother and her only source of comfort is the inspirational Professor Yoon, who teaches her first-year literature class. Even though Jung Yoon herself seems too wrapped up in her personal trauma to engage in direct activism, the specter of political violence and oppression is everywhere, especially on the college campus where some of the novel’s key moments unfold.
One day, Yoon is dangerously swept up in a riot; she is rescued by two of her fellow classmates, a young man named Myungsuh and his withdrawn childhood friend Miru, a "graceful beauty" whose hands were badly burned in a mysterious accident. The three immediately form an intense and intimate friendship: Myungsuh and Miru join Yoon in her explorations of the city, trawling used bookstores, listening to Beethoven, debating the influence of art on politics, and taking turns writing stories in a collective journal. Yoon and Myungsuh are romantically drawn to each other but the violence of the riots, the mysterious tragedy behind Miru’s scarred hands, and the disappearance of her sister’s boyfriend disrupt their happiness. Amid all this, Professor Yoon submits an early resignation, protesting "this age when words have lost their value, this age that is therefore dominated by violent words, by words swollen and yellowed with starvation."
In spite of the title, which implies that regardless of circumstances, our loved ones will "be right there" for us, this is not a novel that glorifies the triumph of human connection. The original Korean title, which translates roughly to “Somewhere, a Telephone Rings For Me,” captures the spirit of loneliness that pervades the novel more accurately. Indeed, the book is full of aborted phone calls — people drunk-dialing one another, hanging up, dialing the wrong number and asking strangers for help, or simply refusing to pick up. “I’ll be right there” has to be understood within this alternate context. It’s both a hopeful promise and an admission of absence, which is all Yoon can offer her friends.
Such pessimism provides new and thought-provoking insight into this period of Korean history, which has been portrayed and reimagined in literature, film, and television so frequently that it has become an integral part of the national cultural consciousness. Kyung-sook Shin herself belongs to the so-called 386 Generation, which came of age with the 1985 advent of the Intel 80386 microprocessor. Shin is one of many Korean writers of this generation interested in looking back to the heady days of rebellion. Her characters, however, are powerless to save each other, and they are conscious of their relative impotence. This attitude offers a different take on a political moment that is often reduced to a more satisfying narrative of the clear victory of the masses over an oppressive power. At one point in the novel, Myungsuh confesses: "I wake up in the morning, blow my nose, and throw the tissue at the trashcan. If it makes it into the can, I go to school, and if it doesn't, I take to the streets." Even though he is the only politically active member of the trio, Myungsuh effectively explains how the hopelessness of the national situation has turned the act of public protest into a meaningless chore. Even if he makes it to the streets, the political significance of the protests is further spoiled by the students’ refusal to acknowledge any problem other than the oppression of the establishment. Ironically, this only breeds further estrangement:
We fight back and get chased some more […] We all stare at the walls and complain of loneliness. All we have to do is turn around, but instead we keep our faces to the walls. It's depressing to think that this will never change. Things were no different last spring, either.
Myungsuh gives voice to the profound isolation that underlies the dynamism in the protesters' fellowship of blood, sweat, and tear gas. Myungsuh’s refusal to see progress in the passage of time also belies another contemporary “truth” accepted by many readers today, who largely understand both the era and these expressions of public outrage as essential to the democratization of South Korea.
Myungsuh’s apparent resignation to political and temporal stasis signals the novel’s larger investigation of the relationship between time, change, and progress. The book opens with a phone call — the first one in eight years — from a much older Myungsuh, now a photojournalist, to tell Yoon that their former literature professor is dying. On hearing his voice, Yoon contemplates the fragility of the past, something we often mistake for a more solidified history:
The future rushes in and all we can do is take our memories and move forward with them. Memory keeps only what it wants. Images from memories are sprinkled throughout our lives, but that does not mean we must believe that our own or other people's memories are of things that really happened. When someone stubbornly insists that they saw something with their own eyes, I take it as a statement mixed with wishful thinking. As what they want to believe. Yet as imperfect as memories are, whenever I am faced with one, I cannot help getting lost in thought.
The story is told through a trio of narrating voices: an older Yoon, who wonders whether she can stomach visiting the dying Professor; her younger self; and a younger Myungsuh, who speaks through his journal entries. Given that multiplicity, it's easy to be lured into thinking that the novel jumps back and forth between past and present. The narrative's reliance on associative memory, however, actually blurs the temporal distinctions that structurethe book. Yoon declares that she tends "to confuse things that happened yesterday with things that happened ten years ago." We can couple that with Myungsuh's bitter admission that he no longer believes in the protests because "Nothing has changed since last year. It's as if time has stopped." Both characters challenge the long-held faith that time heals all wounds.
Shin proposes her own way of understanding how time passes. Seoul serves double duty in this novel: both as homage to a city long gone, and as a model of spatialized time. Yoon's daily expeditions on foot show how patchwork urban development resulted in a city formed of disparate neighborhoods, each stuck in a different era. The hills near Yoon's tiny studio apartment, threaded with a network of winding streets so narrow that they fit only one person at a time, are sheltered from the riots onto which they look down. A 600-year-old white lacebark pine tree in Tongui-dong, rumored to have stopped growing during the Japanese occupation of Korea, serves as a marker and witness to an earlier period of tragedy in Korean history. The shingled traditional houses in the neighborhood of Bukchon are frozen in the 19th century. In Right There, time is not a linear process during which characters mature and grow wiser. Rather, time is an expanse in the shape of the city of Seoul, sprinkled with physical markers of temporality. To visit these places is to travel in time, and to learn the city in its geography is the closest one can come to personal growth.
This should be fun for readers familiar with Seoul. It’s rare to see the backdrop of your own life appear so evocatively in a work of fiction. But Shin has always been very good at selecting the most culturally associative imagery for her readers. Please Look After Mom (2008), Shin’s first book to be translated into English, was such a huge hit partly for that reason. The novel, which looks back in painstaking detail on the life of a martyred wife and mother, seems written to unleash the burden of filial guilt harbored by so many Koreans. Unfortunately, this uncanny ability to locate the sentimental pulse of her readers is what ends up diluting the impact of Right There. Even though Shin doesn't romanticize the political struggle, many of the novel's most significant moments rely on well-worn tropes designed to work the reader's feelings, especially (but certainly not only) if that reader is familiar with Korean culture. The revered professor who awakens a love of poetry in his students, the self-sacrificing mother, the exhilaration of reading Rilke or Roland Barthes for the first time — all this has been done before. In the author's notes, Shin writes:
I do not specifically reveal the era or elucidate Korea's political situation at the time. This was a deliberate decision on my part as a writer, because I believe that what happens to the characters in I'll Be Right There is in no way limited to South Korea. Everything that happens in this novel could happen in any country and in any generation. I believe that no matter how rough the world becomes, there will always be teachers and students learning from each other, and even when savage and violent powers obstruct our freedoms, there will always be earnest and heartfelt first loves and friendships being born. While writing, I was focused and absorbed in giving expression to those moments.
The bind, of course, is that such powerful moments — moments that are "always" happening — have already been written about countless times, and Right There fails to recast them in a way that isn't trite or overdone. The novel is peppered with clichéd contemplations and literary allusions. Professor Yoon asks his students “What is the use of art in this day and age?”, for example. Later, Yoon, Myungsuh, and Miru recite Emily Dickinson poems out loud in solemn harmony. Despite posing these questions and evoking literary heroes, it remains unclear how this novel understands art and its place in the world today. Emily Dickinson, for example, is clearly one of the most influential literary figures for these characters (Miru's cat is even named after her), but Dickinson's work, while quoted extensively, is treated in the most cursory and superficial way. Yoon’s childhood friend provides a comment characteristic of the literary discussions in this novel when he says that Dickinson “seemed to see things that were not of this world […] Like death…and so on." I wouldn't let that sort of claim fly in one of my undergraduate classes, and it certainly shouldn't here. It might help if the author gave us a wink or an apologetic smile that says, "They're kids, just bear with them," but the work lacks a gesture that might keep the naïveté from coming off as trite and saccharine. While Shin’s knack for knowingly pushing the right sentimental buttons may leave some readers nostalgic for this era, others may feel a little manipulated.
Ultimately, the novel feels conflicted. It’s committed to examining the psychology of revolutionary camaraderie. At the same time, however, it depicts a world that often seems too quaint and precious for the political realities it tries to grapple with.